Gates says U.S. reluctant to alter Iraq troop draft

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 21, 2008 5:48pm EDT

1 of 11. A U.S soldier and Iraqi boys play with a soccer ball during a patrol Baquba, in Diyala province some 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad October 21, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington does not want to alter a draft security pact with Iraq, despite demands for change from Baghdad where the document failed to win support from Iraqi political leaders, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday.

After months of painstaking talks that ended last week, Iraq effectively called for reopening negotiations to address objections to the status of forces agreement (SOFA) draft that would require U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

But Gates told reporters at the Pentagon that the door to change was "pretty far closed" and warned that failure to reach a SOFA deal or renew the U.N. mandate for U.S. troops to remain in the country would mean suspension of U.S. operations.

"There is great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process," the U.S. defense chief said.

"This is not just kind of a paper exercise. The consequences of not getting an agreement are very real," he added. "We basically (would) stop doing anything."

Objections by Iraqi political leaders appeared to be about details rather than the broad thrust of the pact, which is intended to replace the U.N. mandate that expires December 31.

"The cabinet has agreed that necessary amendments to the pact could make it nationally accepted," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters after a cabinet meeting.

"The cabinet will continue its meetings (in coming days), in which ministers will give their opinions and consult and provide the amendments suggested. Then this will be given to the American negotiating team."

LET IRAQI POLITICS PLAY OUT

Gates dismissed objections from Iraqi politicians, saying differing political opinions in Iraq would likely balance each other out and could lead to progress in the end.

"We just have to let the Iraqi political process play out," Gates said.

The Iraqi announcement on Tuesday was an apparent reversal for Baghdad, which had previously described last week's draft as a final text and said as recently as Saturday that it was unlikely to be renegotiated.

The draft would require U.S. troops to leave Iraq after 2011 unless Baghdad asks them to stay and allow Iraqi courts try U.S. military service members accused of serious crimes while off duty.

It would mean that foreign troops, which now operate under a U.N. Security Council mandate, would function for the first time under the authority of the elected government in Baghdad. Both sides call it a milestone for Iraqi sovereignty.

Some Iraqi politicians have expressed reservations over details such as the mechanism for trying of U.S. troops. Only Kurdish groups have so far given the text full support.

Humam Hamoudi, a leading member of parliament from the Shi'ite alliance, said that among those voicing doubts in recent days was Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has yet to speak about the pact in public.

"The prime minister said: what (the Americans) have given with the right hand they have taken away with the left hand," Hamoudi told a news conference.

Maliki's Shi'ite rivals -- followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- strongly oppose the pact, as does the leadership of mainly Shi'ite Iran, which has influence among Iraqi Shi'ites.

A senior, non-Shi'ite government source said the delay was prompted by Shi'ite politicians under Iranian pressure.

"It seems there was a (Shi'ite) alliance decision to reject it," he said. "I can only explain these Shi'ite delaying tactics by Iranian pressure. There's no other explanation."

Gates said renewing the U.N. mandate was a less attractive option than the SOFA. It would require a vote by the U.N. Security Council that could draw a veto from Russia.

"What really needs to happen is for us to get this SOFA done. It's a good agreement. It's good for us. It's good for them. It really protects Iraqi sovereignty," he said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a member of a Kurdish group that backs the draft, said the pact was unlikely to pass before the U.S. presidential election on November 4.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Peter Graff and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; Editing by Eric Beech)

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